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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Climate Change Challenges the Human Imagination

At times of crisis, we turn to art and myth, the realms where hope resides

Image Credit: Image courtesy of NASA

We live in strange times. It’s clear that our politicians have been remarkably inept at addressing the climate change crisis. Scientists tell us that we have already injected so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that, especially in light of the ineptitude of political leadership, it is almost certainly too late for the human race to avoid environmental catastrophe.

In short, the chain of events we have set in motion is in all likelihood irreversible.

While most of us know these facts, we busy ourselves with other concerns. We have to pick up a dozen eggs on the way home from work. We need to stop at a garage to get the oil changed. We need to reschedule an upcoming dentist appointment.

The tension between our everyday concerns and the certainty of climate change — an impending catastrophe that is largely unaddressed — creates a type of insanity. Our insanity is socially acceptable, because we all share it.

How do we understand this tension? Scientists have tried to help us achieve understanding by using data and argument, but these scientists have failed — at least if success is measured by counting the number of politicians who display leadership skills, or by a tally of effective actions taken to address the crisis.

We are facing an existential challenge: a moral challenge as well as a challenge of the imagination.

Perhaps the human soul can only approach an understanding of these issues through art or myth. While art and myth are unlikely to result in reduced carbon emissions, they may help heal our broken souls as we march forward into our uncertain future.

Art and myth are the usual ways we explain geologic time. These days, as geologic time becomes suddenly compressed — as glaciers that have endured for millennia melt in a matter…

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10 Comments

  1. Clara Kim | | #1

    Thoughtful
    Thank you for writing about this and trying to put it into words. Many of us will see the dangerous times ahead. Life and humans will survive in some form, but it will be a drastically different near-future.

  2. Dan Kolbert | | #2

    Happy New Year
    Reading this as I get ready to retire for the last time for 2017. Well said, Martin. Live as if our lives depend on it.

  3. Brian Bailey | | #3

    Thank you
    I appreciate this, Martin. I listened to the podcast of the On The Media show you referenced, while enjoying some time in the cold woods bucking dead trees for firewood.

    Those dead trees are mostly Ash, which have now been gone for years due to the Ash Borer infestation that has already swept through my area. The infestation itself seems plausibly linked to climate change. The particularly cold day was a part of a funky weather pattern (which you also experienced, I believe) that blanketed the Eastern US in cold and snow. The wintry weather felt like an undeserved gift given that most of the rest of the world remains hotter than ever.

    The harvest of those dead Ash trees and their use for heating our home is a small step I can take to alleviate the carbon load I leave behind as a modern human. But, it is small step indeed compared to the immensity of the problem. I'd like to be able to tell my young sons, the true inheritors of the mess, that I did what I could even though my government turned a willfully blind eye.

  4. Bill G | | #4

    Existential Angst?
    Martin,
    Great post.
    A lot of people only think about stuff as far as they can physically reach, so will not pay attention until they hit their head on the low beam.
    WRT current political climate "This too will pass", hopefully before it is truly irreversible.

    VanderMeer : "... I sometimes walk down the street and I think, everything here seems so permanent, but it’s not. Buildings, landscapes. All of this could be wiped away. ...".
    See the movie "A Ghost Story".

    After channeling Prufrock (or perhaps sheetrock?), and now Kierkegaard, I think you must have a side job reading in bookstores and coffee shops.

    bill g

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Bill G
    Bill,
    Thanks for your comments (and your apparent concern about my angst level). Angstwise, I'm doing as well as can be expected, I think. My Prufrock excursion was an example of fun rather than angst -- as I pointed out in the comment section on that page, the narrator is not the poet.

    When it comes to climate change, I strive for clear vision and a rational analysis. I still seek and find joy in all the usual daily pleasures, so I am not yet anhedonic. That said, like most Americans, I'd certainly like to see more action on the climate change issue.

  6. Paul Fleckenstein | | #6

    Essential to identify the system first
    Martin, Thank you for the post on this topic. I think we have to think more critically though about conclusions like "we have already injected so much carbon dioxide.....". There is actually no "we". All the significant decisions about fossil fuel infrastructure and technology are (1) made completely undemocratically and (2) driven by imperatives of profit, competition, and endless growth. This is a system called capitalism, and it necessarily drives climate destruction. Here is another book I think is worth reading that gives more basis for hope that things can be changed, because, for one, it gives a convincing explanation of why things are only getting worse despite wide recognition that there is a problem: https://monthlyreview.org/product/creating_an_ecological_society/

  7. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Paul Fleckenstein
    Paul,
    Thanks for the link. You'll get no argument from me on the fact that capitalism is driving climate change. As Kim Stanley Robinson noted on the "On the Media" show I discussed, "Good people pursuing legal means can make themselves rich while the environment suffers."

    In our last presidential election, most Vermont voters supported the candidate from our state, a democratic socialist. But if I recall correctly, that candidate lost the election.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    For GBA readers who appreciated the musings on this page, I'd like to recommend another article: "Extinction Rebellion Is Creating a New Narrative of the Climate Crisis" by Charlotte Du Cann.

  9. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Every now and then, I'm tempted to add a relevant link to this article. Here's my latest suggestion: a New York Times book review titled "How to Write Fiction When the Planet Is Falling Apart."

    Here's a quote from the book review: "Artists thinking seriously about depicting the climate crisis join a contentious conversation among scientists and activists who have long been struggling with the 'narrative problem' of the climate emergency. How do we write a story with an antagonist when we are the antagonist?"

  10. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #10

    Thanks Martin, for this thoughtful article and the tremendous amount of helpful work that you've done at GBA.

    What would happen if the coronavirus mutated to a form that would wipe out the "civilized world" and most of the human race? If only remote tribes survived ("the meek shall inherit the earth")?

    What would happen if a full-scale nuclear war brought nuclear winter and destruction of most of our major cities and infrastructure?

    These are just a few (and maybe the most brutal) events that might stop global warming and human infestation of our planet. There's lots of other ways too (I'm optimistic), but agree we lack the seriousness to change with a gradual, almost invisible threat. (Is the main threat overpopulation, fossil fuel overuse, capitalist priorities, anti-science propaganda, hate mongering... not sure.)

    Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to cook some eggs, go buy some gas engine coolant for my car, and get back to work on a cosmetic renovation project... (Bad joke.)

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